Eight women, eight ways to combat inequality at work
In Mexico, a scientist, a domestic worker, a politician, a chef, an artist, a bartender, a police officer and an athlete told EL PAÍS about the discrimination and violence they experience in their everyday environment
The majority of Mexican women work in unequal conditions compared to their male colleagues. Caught between the glass ceiling and the sticky floor, women work at lower-paid jobs with fewer opportunities for promotion and career development. To the generalized violence in a country afflicted by a high rate of femicides, we must add discrimination and harassment in the workplace. EL PAÍS has collected the testimony of eight workers – a scientist, a domestic worker, a politician, a chef, an artist, a bartender, a police officer and an athlete – who describe the inequalities and violence that each of them faces in their work environment due to the fact of being a woman.
Women workers in Mexico earn between 13% and 27% less than their male counterparts for the same tasks, according to figures from the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness (IMCO), and only 4% of management positions in companies listed on the Mexican Stock Exchange are held by women. In 2020, the Ministry of Labor made public that 26% of female employees say they have experienced some type of discrimination or workplace violence. Of the more than 109,000 resignations for workplace harassment and psychological violence at work that occurred in Mexico last year, 66,581 were women, representing 66% of the total.
To this must be added the complaints of sexual violence that take place year after year: 27.9% of those interviewed in 2021 in the National Survey on the Dynamics of Household Relations (ENDIREH) declared having experienced some type of violence at work, a figure that has increased compared to the previous 2016 survey. This violence that women experience excludes them from their work spaces, damages their self-esteem, their health, integrity, and impedes their growth within companies.
The lack of work-life balance, few maternity leaves and a business culture that punishes pregnant women – it is the main cause of unfair dismissal in Mexico – continue to be some of the pending issues for women in the corporate world. Around 73% of unpaid care work is also carried out by women, according to the National Statistics Institute (INEGI). In addition, four out of 10 are in charge of all household responsibilities, followed by 22% who have to take care of some of the tasks. Thus, most women do not have enough time for themselves, which negatively affects their quality of life and the possibilities of building a professional career. These are some of their stories:
Vanessa Arellano, 33 years old
Fired for being a survivor of sexual abuse
Vanessa Arellano smiles at the door of a clinical lab north of Mexico City. On the door there is a little sign with her name and job title, which at times she herself has found difficult to believe: Dr. Arellano, chief of the laboratory. The path to that position has included overcoming several months of sexual and labor abuse at her former workplace, the veiled daily discrimination for being a female scientist, and the suffocating feeling that no matter how much you do, it is never enough.
Arellano studied biology at the National Polytechnic Institute, because it seemed to her that it would open the door to the world of things that we do not know; she specialized in the study of cancer after the death of her grandfather from that disease, and pursued master’s and doctorate studies in medicine and molecular biotechnology. A conscientious student, she was the only woman in some of the research groups, and received orders from the teachers: “You go fetch the biopsies because your classmates never arrive in time;” “You tidy up this place, you know how bad guys are at that kind of thing.”
Science is a complicated environment to be a woman. The requirement to publish theses and articles, the absorbing work and the lack of fixed schedules forces women to choose between being mothers or advancing in their professional career. Arellano is still betting on the latter.
“It also happens a lot that your credit gets stolen,” says the scientist, referring to how bosses or advisors take advantage of women’s technical and operational work to steal recognition from them. “We can’t go alone to do field work, either, because it’s dangerous,” she explains about the ecology studies of new species of plants or animals in remote communities where there have been abuses.
And then there is the bullying. “I had experienced episodes of micro-machismo, but then I came to a federal institution and there were no limits anymore,” she says. She was 30 years old when she joined an agency with an external contract to process samples in a government institute that was understaffed. When a colleague began to touch her without her consent, her bosses punished her instead. She had to carry the heaviest coolers, process the riskiest samples, while the sexual abuse continued. They fired him but also her. She filed a complaint along with other colleagues who had experienced the same sexual harassment. She left that job thinking she was worthless.
Three years later, she is making an effort to pull herself together through therapy and work. “A few weeks ago I was like ‘I haven’t done anything, I don’t know anything, I’m nobody.’ Now I’m trying to acknowledge all the things I’ve done.”
Nancy Rojas, 43 years old
The battle for the dignity of domestic work
Nancy Rojas, born in Medellín (Colombia), understood immediately that knowledge is power. After working and training in childcare, in 2002 she arrived in Mexico City with a couple whom she knew after having cared for the man’s mother back in Colombia. But Rojas did not like what she found in Mexico. Of all the workers in the house (about six, including drivers, cooks and caretakers), she was the only one with social security. There was a constant lack of respect, endless working days and no leaves ever granted. She fought to assert her rights and the tension with her employer became unbearable. The second year she managed to get her colleagues signed up to social security, but two years later she decided to quit and work in another home.
“When I left, she told me: ‘You can’t stay in Mexico, because I brought you here and now you have to go.’ I asked her why, since I wasn’t her property, and her answer was: ‘Let’s see who has more power, you or me,’ recalls Rojas. The worker won because she knew what to do: she made sure to have all her paperwork in order with her new employer and, when the lady of the former household went to immigration services to try to get her deported, she ran into a wall. “Whenever they bring in a worker, they don’t think that you are providing a service for them; they think they are your owners,” she says. With a small frame and a deep gaze, Rojas speaks with the voice of someone who knows she is right: domestic service does not mean servility.
Women represent 93% of a sector that employs 2.3 million people in Mexico, according to the National Institute of Statistics. Foreigners are often stuck in the worst situations. “Many are deceived and end up being victims of trafficking,” laments Rojas. Others expose themselves to abuse. “I experienced it coming from Colombia, but it also happens with the women who are brought in from other Mexican states such as Puebla or Oaxaca... They don’t know how to express themselves well, they haven’t got any studies, and employers take advantage to pay them less,” she explains.
Rojas, who is now a palliative care student at UNAM, is also an activist at CACEH, a center that trains and advises women in the sector. She has done outreach work in 10 states, but her goal is to reach all of them. “Just like I did, they can too. If you don’t fight for your rights, who is going to fight?
Andrea Chávez, 26 years old
The demerit of being a woman in politics
“If I had boobs, I would already be Secretary of State.” That is the phrase that a senator said to Andrea Chávez a few days after she started working as a private secretary in the Senate. She was barely 21 years old but she will never forget the derogatory way in which the lawmaker spoke to her, assuming that she had obtained that position because she was a woman. Four years later, Chávez is a federal lawmaker for the Morena party, and although it is more difficult now for someone to say something like that to her face, every day she runs into politicians who patronize her for being a woman and for being young. “It underlies the narrative, it underlies the way they treat you on a daily basis,” she says.
On social networks, however, her critics know no limits. Nine out of 10 comments are presumptions about her sex life and how she got her representative’s seat. There are claims that she slept with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or with Interior Secretary Adán Augusto López, although both could be her father or even her grandfather due to their age. “No woman should ever be questioned about her sex life. Not in the private sphere nor in the public sphere. It’s that easy,” she says.
When her mother was pregnant with her, the doctors told her that it would be a boy. If she had been born Emiliano, as they wanted to call her, she would not be facing this discrimination, or perhaps she would have faced fewer obstacles in the jungle of Mexican politics. But Andrea was not only born a woman, she was also born on March 8, International Women’s Day.
Sandra Moreno, 42 años
A chef looking to get her life back
“I gave more than 15 years of my life to cooking and I couldn’t take it anymore,” says Sandra Moreno. For her, cooking had a romantic aura that reminded her of the love of her grandmother, a tough woman who only took the time to be sensitive when teaching her how to prepare dishes. More than 20 years ago, she started working in a restaurant in the upscale Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City, and she knew that she wanted to devote her life to gastronomy. But then things changed.
She has always felt that being a chef is a very tough profession, “especially if you are a woman.” At the Instituto de Arte Culinario Coronado, one of the most important cooking schools in Mexico, a group of 10 women and 10 men started at the same time. Only she and another classmate graduated; Moreno was the only one who practiced professionally.
But even before entering the labor market, “I already suffered discrimination,” she says. “I had a teacher who said that he would not stop until I quit this career, just because I am allergic to mayonnaise. He would never have said that to a man.” The teachers ignored them. They were not allowed to enter contests or special classes. “In the industry you hear all the time that women are not born to be professional chefs but rather home cooks; they think that we do not have good taste and that we cannot stand up for so long.”
Moreno, however, has worked in Las Vegas and Mississippi; in the city of San Sebastián in northern Spain; in Vallarta, Guadalajara, Monterrey and Mexico City, and she has run several kitchens.
The chef wears horn-rimmed glasses, and loves to wear hats and black clothes. “I’m very much in the middle of the two genders, I’m not that feminine but I’m not that masculine either,” she says. As part of the LGBT+ community, she considers that she has experienced another aspect of violence. When her classmates found out she was a lesbian, they began to treat her “like a dude.” A blow to the arm, a loss of personal space. “They slapped each other on the butt, but they approached me in a different way, justifying it on the premise that I was one of them,” she says, explaining that she even lost jobs for trying to set limits.
Discrimination was key to Moreno deciding to leave, although she still works in the sector. “I am 43 years old, I already went for the dream of being a great chef, and I know it is a fantasy. Now I am seeking to recover at least 10 years of my life.” With a project that she joined a year ago, she now works as a consultant in a company that does projects for restaurant chains and fast food, and she enjoys it. The food industry is such a small world that Moreno decided not to use her real name in this story.
Galia Eibenschutz, 52 years old
A slow artistic career to be a mother
A die-cut wooden screen divides the professional and family life of the plastic artist, choreographer and performer Galia Eibenschutz. One within reach of the other. On one side, there is her studio, where she has dozens of sketches for the next performance that she will direct: a proposal that arose when she began to draw cacti during the pandemic. There will be seven dancers on stage who will undress and turn their costumes into sculptures. On the other side is the rest of the house, where she lives with her children. The eldest was born 18 years ago, when Eibenschutz was studying for a master’s degree in Amsterdam. The first year she had won a scholarship, but the second year she was denied support because the university considered that her husband’s income was enough.
“I was in another country without family to help take care of my son; I had to take care of him because his father had to work and, besides, he was going to pay for my studies? I didn’t want that,” says Eibenschutz. So she quit her master’s degree and they returned to Mexico. “It started to go very well for him and we had to follow that lead. I worked in small periods of free time,” she explains. When they received visitors, these would see the children’s drawings on the wall and comment: “Of course, with a father who is an artist…”. They worked together, but for the art world, he was the artist while she was the performer and mother of his children. “It was as if all my other work not associated with him was worthless. All kinds of authorship were taken away from me,” When they separated, job opportunities began to come “immediately.”
Eibenschutz is petite and powerful; she has big blue eyes and a wide smile. She is sitting and talking with her whole body. The art world continues to have “very masculine” codes for her: “There is brutal competition and you have to produce, produce, produce. And going to openings, fairs, dinners, being well dressed, pretending to have money... Artists who have children go much slower. I’m lagging behind.” She enjoys motherhood, but now she wants to focus on her work. Although sometimes – she can’t help it – she feels guilty: “It was very difficult for artists my age or older. I am not saying that it is not difficult for those emerging now, but it is a big difference. ”
Siomara Bojorquez, 26 years old
The machismo behind the counter
As a bartender there are so many stories of inequality that Siomara Bojorquez doesn’t know where to start. The most recent one was at an event inside a Mexico City hotel, where a man asked her for several cocktails. When she made the third Martini for him, the client asked a question that Bojorquez still remembers with disgust: “Can I record you doing it? It’s just that it excites me a lot.” A colleague took over so she wouldn’t have to, but she couldn’t shake that feeling of vulnerability.
Bojorquez has been working in the hospitality industry since she was 18 years old. She has gone through various positions, from kitchen to waitress jobs, but where she has noticed sexism the most has been while preparing drinks. Beyond the harassment from customers and the fact that her colleagues are surprised that she can carry boxes and ice bags of up to 25 kilos like the rest of the team, she says that behind the counter a bar is where there are more problems for a woman’s authority to be recognized. “I had an inexperienced boy in my charge. I was his boss and when I asked him for things he would reply: ‘A woman is not going to boss me around.”
That difference in attitude just because of her gender, also comes from above. “My boss was going to leave his position and I took over from him. They told me they were going to pay me the same as him. Over the months, I discovered that he had been paid much more for the same position.” In the end, she threatened to quit and they matched his salary. “For the simple fact of being a girl, you lose out. It shouldn’t be like that, but it is the reality in which we live”, she laments.
Karen Ortiz, 42 years old
The conquest of policewomen
When Karen Ortiz joined the Mexico City police force, she had just a few female colleagues. It was 2002. Today, 21 years later, she is 42 years old and holds the post of general inspector in charge of the Benito Juárez mayor’s office. She is the only policewoman in charge of a mayor’s office out of 16 in the city. Getting to that position has been an obstacle course.
A mother of two with two university degrees, Ortiz works full time. Balancing personal and work life is a challenge that she faces daily, as do all her colleagues in the department, some of whom have even become heads of families. Many have spent their professional lives trying to prove that the comment they had heard, that women couldn’t do it, was not true. “Of course we can,” she says.
At the end of the day, when they go out in uniform, everyone takes on the same risk, she adds. With an impeccable uniform, an elaborate hairstyle and a constant smile, Ortiz says that the evolution that the police force has experienced is shown by the figures: “When I joined there were about five female officers on duty, today we are more than 70.″ But she acknowledges that there are still things to change, such as including transsexual people in the police force. “The process has been fun, it has been complicated, but we have achieved it and we continue to work hand in hand so that we can continue to move forward.”
Nora Ochoa, 23 years old
Prejudice towards women in a contact sport
Nora Fernanda Ochoa Pérez’s enthusiasm overflows in her smile. She is young and has devastating energy. She was born 23 years ago in Chihuahua, in northern Mexico, where some of the best indigenous runners in the world are also from. And it is precisely because of them and other “less privileged” individuals that she wants to continue winning medals in what is her greatest passion: mixed martial arts. She belongs to a generation of women who feel more optimistic about the future, and who feel that one of the most powerful obstacles to achieving great things is the mind itself, when it sets limits.
Ochoa began practicing taekwondo at the age of four, and at 16 she was already involved in mixed martial arts, where she uses her entire body, her physical strength and strategy to defeat her opponents. She has always felt that with her colleagues and companions the treatment is one of empathy. Discrimination, ignorance and prejudice always come from the outside. “In contact sports, women are always a minority. And it has always been outside of the sports environment where I have received derogatory comments, such as ‘what are you doing there if you are a woman, that is a sport for men.’ That stereotype still exists in society,” says Ochoa. But she knows that women like her can be world champions.
Ochoa wants it more than anything. She is aware of the legacy of her ancestors, but also of her “privileged” position. “I have had to look for sponsorships on my own, knock on doors, be at traffic lights asking for financial support. The people of Chihuahua are very empathetic and I think that is where the greatest support comes from, from the people who are here in the city,” she says.
Her eyes light up just imagining that the next world championship is around the corner: “I plan to bring home the gold. I just want to put the Mexican flag in first place in amateur mixed martial arts,” she says with an impetuous spirit. “A generation of women before me had to face the struggle of breaking stereotypes and making their way, and I feel that the responsibility that I and my colleagues have, the women who are already in the competitive field, is to keep that door open for the girls who will come after us.”
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